China’s National Bureau of Statistics has a tough time. If they are not being castigated for exaggerated wage data, then it’s doubts about the reliability of GDP or accusations that the consumer price index understates the true increase in prices.
There’s even a saying on the Chinese internet that “the comrades in the statistical bureau don’t buy vegetables.” The implication is that if they did they would know the true extent of price increases (in Chinese).
Those doubts can now be laid to rest, at least a little.
At an open day hosted by the statisticians in Beijing Tuesday, Mrs. Wang from the Shanxi provincial statistics office confirmed in the margins of the event that she did buy vegetables. “If I didn’t what would I eat?” she replied.
The event was part of a broader effort to open China’s statistical system, long criticized for being opaque, to the public and the media. Senior officials, from NBS chief Ma Jiantang on down, fielded questions from the media, the public and online participants.
One question from the floor was essentially a variation on the vegetable joke: “Why is there such a big gap between peoples’ perception of high inflation and the relatively low numbers for changes in consumer prices reported by the NBS?”
The answer from Pang Xiaolin of the NBS: Everyone’s consumption basket is different, so some people will see prices rising faster than the average recorded by the CPI. People also buy food in different places, and might see prices rising sharply in their neck of the woods when prices elsewhere rise only more modestly.
(Not on Mr. Pang’s list of reasons, but perhaps more important, is the absence of property prices from the CPI basket. With rising property prices a major focus of attention for China’s consumers, their absence from the CPI basket means there is often a mismatch between perceptions of inflation and the numbers published by the NBS.)
Another topic of interest for the audience was the math behind China’s official household income data. A survey in 2008 by Prof Wang Xiaolu suggested that the average annual disposable income of China’s richest 10% was 139,000 yuan, more than 300% higher than the official 43,000 yuan figure. Xu Xianchun, a NBS official, explained that the richest 10% were represented in the survey, and that problems with collecting data on the rich were not unique to China.
One factor he did not mention – the “gray income” China’s rich receive from dubious sources and which they are typically unwilling to divulge to the statisticians.
“You can’t get fat from eating a single mouthful” goes a saying in China. Change takes time and a transparent statistical system won’t be built in a day, or even a year. But an increased willingness to engage with the public and the press, and to explain how the data is put together in greater detail, at least suggests things might be moving in the right direction.
– Tom Orlik
– Tom Orlik